Austria's Astonishingly Successful 1998s

The 1998 vintage in the Krems area, Austria fount of world-class dry white wine, commenced auspiciously. Flowering was early and ample rain fell in spring and early summer, providing the reserves so critical for success in Austria's porous Urgestein soil (mineral-rich primary rock). Mid-summer was sunny and abnormally hot, but the vines, previously well-watered, did not shut down. Indeed, growers who are able to drip?irrigate generally didn't do so this year. It looked as though an early and excellent harvest was in store, a second consecutive vintage to make one forget the rather bizarre patterns of '95 and '96. But Nature had other ideas. Before the 1998 harvest was over in early November, the patience and skill of Austria's vintners would be sorely tested.

"You're thinking a vintage can't get much more difficult, or crazier, than you've already seen," relates F. X. Pichler. "And then comes a year like this. Until August 10, we had great expectations. The season was a good two weeks in advance and the grapes were plentiful, healthy and hanging beautifully. We went out and bought new tanks in anticipation. Then it began to rain. And it kept raining, well into October. What saved us was that the grapes had already reached good physiological ripeness, and that we eventually got sunshine and a dry wind from the east."

Almost overnight, under the influence of botrytis, heat and that dry wind, the sugar levels climbed to scarcely imaginable proportions. "It was just crazy," continues Pichler. "We'd never seen such a thing. Thankfully, the acids kept pace with the sugars." This, plus the unusually high levels of dry extract resulting from so much early moisture (which had allowed the vines to "feed" from the soil), were critical elements in bringing balance to the wines of an extreme vintage. Emmerich Knoll put this even more forcefully: "All in all, the cool September probably brought more positive than negative. Certainly at some point we wanted to see the rain let up, that's clear. But in a year with early ripeness, a cool, wet September has advantages in amassing extract, conserving acidity, and building fruit aromas. In these respects, 1993 was similar." Botrytis, dehydration, and bunches literally blown to the ground by wind all drove down 1998 yields. Pichler will have to save his new tanks for another year!

"Anybody who tells you they made a wine from perfectly healthy fruit in '98 is putting one over on you," says Freie Weingartner director Willi Klinger. Success in '98 was in large part determined by how rigorously growers eliminated rot, or how it was nobly or less nobly woven into the fabric of the finished wines. Those who rushed to harvest the moment the sun returned had leisure to repent. With rapidly encroaching botrytis, explains Knoll, "there can be a natural panic reaction: Get the fruit in while you still can! Who knows what the weather will bring.? But right after the onset of botrytis is not an optimal time to harvest. The berries are no longer healthy, the skins are partially destroyed, but there isn't any real concentration yet. Of course, if this year hadn't been dry, warm and windy after the 20th of October, so that a real concentration set in, then waiting would have been a mistake. But thank God, the weather turned. And you know, if you accept the challenge of a year like this, and succeed, it's more satisfying than a year like '97."

This sense of accomplishment, pride and relief, not to mention natural favoritism toward the youngest child, may prejudice the judgment of those numerous growers who insisted that they actually prefer their '98s to their '97s. But there is another factor: style. Nineteen ninety-seven is a vintage of ideal balance and an almost static harmony. The '98s, by contrast, are active and playful, demanding attention with particular charm and unabashed persistence. Beside them, some '97s might seem insufferably serene and self-satisfied. Don't worry: if you bought those '97s, you too should feel self-satisfied. Still, the best '98s represent, as Ludwig Hiedler said about his own collection, "a vintage of fantastic personalities, each one going its own way. There's a tension here that was missing in the more uniform '97s, as lovely as those were." The '98s are more likely than '97s to experience both good days and bad in the course of their evolution. But devotees will want to have 1998s in their collection and/or on their table. Perhaps, as F. X. Pichler opines, the '98 rieslings and gr?ner veltliners, with their ample acidity, high ripeness and high extract, will even outlive those of other recent vintages.

Difficult choices had to be made in the cellar between high alcohol and residual sugar. Successive passes in the vineyards to cull botrytized fruit were necessary if for no other reason than to ensure balanced, genuinely dry wines in the categories of Smaragd or Sp?ese. (For details on Austrian wine terminology, please consult in particular International Wine Cellar Issues 52, 62 and 75.) In this regard, it must be said, growers in the Wachau, Krems and the Kamptal seem a good deal more concerned for their reputation as a source for dry wines than do their colleagues in Alsace. Selective harvest, as Knoll put it, "killed two flies with one swat, keeping the Smaragd from going overboard" while generating sweet Auslesen, BAs and TBAs. There is little question that in these Pr?katsweine, '98 surpasses 1995, scoring some stunning successes. The fruit was riper and the acid balance better, and the growers have learned a thing or two about vinifying vins liquoreux. Their countrymen offer some excellent models: I witnessed Rudi Pichler scheduling some "coaching" with Alois Kracher, and it would be hard to find a better mentor.

Which brings us to that home base for Austrian sweet wines, Burgenland, my report on which follows my extended coverage of the numerous growing regions near Krems. Nineteen ninety-eight brought a bumper crop of stickies to Burgenland's Neusiedlersee, many of them still fermenting as I write. I confine my detailed notes below to 1996 and 1997, which I tasted in bottle in late June. Both were difficult vintages, yet the successes among the top growers are simply too lovely and multifaceted to disregard. Four days in the region also permitted closer examination of Burgenland's especially successful '97 reds, many of which are arriving Stateside this year. I include notes on some of the best of these, as well as a few '98 reds already in the market, although my visit brought a realization that I had only scratched the surface of a deep vein of impressive material.

The Krems area and Burgenland by no means exhaust Austria as a wine land, but they continue to tower over other growing regions in quality and account for the vast majority of wines exported to the United States. In Austria's southern growing area, Styria, rain and ensuing botrytis in 1998 proved much more damaging, based on samples I tasted from five of the most reliable growers. I did not taste any '98s from the environs of Vienna, or from the vast Weinviertel and Thermenregion, which stretch north and south, respectively, of Austria's capital.

All wines were tasted at the estates during the second half of June and from bottle, except where otherwise noted. I have designated all vineyards without preceding them with the name of their village or the word "Ried" (vineyard), although one or both of these may appear on the label. Except in rare instances where it clarified my explanations, I have listed the wines in the order in which the proprietors chose to serve them. Wines designated with an asterisk were particularly impressive. Two asterisks signifies a wine of profound complexity. I have hedged my bets or anticipated likely improvement by means of parentheses. Under no circumstances should these "ratings," nearly always based on a single tasting, be considered in isolation from my complete tasting notes.